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Supervisor's Role in Employee Performance

November 2009

One of the elements of organizational success rests on its employee's performance. To put this into perspective, the ultimate goal of an organization is survival. In order to survive, the organization must produce something that people need and want, and must be able to produce this at a profit. This is tied to customer satisfaction, loyalty, and retention, which depends on the organization's ability to deliver on its promises.

by Peter G. Furst
Author, Public Speaker, University Lecturer

Foundational to all this is the capabilities and motivation of the organization's employees. This is a symbiotic relationship here. The employee needs the organization to provide it with a job, and the organization needs the employee to activate its processes and systems so as to produce the product or service.

Creating a Productive Work Environment

An important organizational goal is to assist in creating a productive work environment for its employees. Traditionally, this has meant complying with the organization's polices and procedures. Generally, all organizations have similar fundamental rules and expectations. The formal processes may be found in the HR documentation, but the execution (implementation) is in operations. Both the formal and informal practices are generally reflective of the type of activity the organization engages in and the culture and climate the leadership creates.

In most cases, organizations are vertically organized. This is reflective of the specialization required to manage the various departments or functions of the organization. These departments eventually tend to have their "own" goals, objectives, metrics, and even language. This internal separation and isolation among departments tends to create barriers, which impede efficient production. Invariably, improvement efforts tend to focus on the worker rather than the organizational systems. The resulting traditional interventions have been rewriting or modifying programs, training or retraining the workers, emphasizing certain aspects of the program, setting up priorities, increasing emphasis on audits and inspections, giving incentives, or enforcing disciplinary measures. There is no question that these interventions work to some extent, but eventually they all "plateau," and we know they do not achieve lasting improved results, because we tend to keep repeating them!

These traditional improvement activities don't get at the underlying barriers. Yes, the worker has to work efficiently, be productive, and try to achieve and even exceed goals—but system-driven barriers cannot be overcome by greater effort on the part of the worker.

First of all, there may be issues with the worker. Some of these issues may be physical or they may be "internal" to the worker, such as capability, knowledge, motivation, personality, etc. On top of these, such things as values and perception will also affect the employee's ability to perform. These should have been identified at point-of-hire, or if not, there ought to be a process that addresses these shortcomings with training, education, mentoring, coaching, constructive feedback, etc., to bring the employee up to par.

Generating Greater Worker Productivity

There is a general expectation that a construction worker shows up to work with sufficient knowledge and ability to perform the work. And since construction employment is at the discretion of the employer, the expectation is that, for employment to continue, a certain level of performance is expected. The challenge is how to get the additional discretionary productivity from the employee.

This productivity "bonus" hinges on how the first line supervisor interacts with the workforce. Unfortunately, in construction, the first line supervisors are not given any formal training or education in this area. The expectation is that they somehow magically gain this capability upon being anointed as a supervisor. Some of the performance barriers may result from the immediate supervisor's capabilities, knowledge, motivation, and personality, much like the employee's. These are, in turn, affected by the organizational, processes, procedures, and systems that set expectations for the supervisor.

Usually the supervisor comes from the ranks of the workforce. The skill set required of a productive and successful worker is to be able to perform the work effectively. This requires technical skills as well as physical ability. A worker who does this well and shows initiative may be selected to become a supervisor. However, the supervisor requires a different set of skills to be successful at this position.

Let's look at the skill sets of workers, supervisors, and others in management positions. Since the supervisor will be supervising workers who may be less skilled, the supervisor still needs technical skills to provide the worker with guidance and support. But to be an effective supervisor requires other skills that are equally or maybe more important. Some of these required skills are administrative and human relations, to name just a couple. So, for the supervisor to be successful in his/her new position, it is incumbent on management to provide the education and training required to make the new supervisor an effective member of the management team.

Click here for Figure 1: Job-Required Skills.

Management by Objectives

Performance management is about meeting goals. Goal achievement requires management. To be able to manage effectively, metrics are required. Newly promoted supervisors must be given some tools with which to manage effectively. Peter Drucker first publicized the Management by Objectives (MBO) approach to performance management. Although opinions on this process vary, most will agree that this approach involves the establishment and communication of organizational goals and the setting of individual objectives supportive of those organizational goals. Following goal setting, there needs to be periodic progress reviews with feedback on the progress and achievement.

The key components of this process are:

  • Understanding of organizational goals and objectives
  • Effective mutual goal setting aligned with the above
  • Agreement on goals and time to accomplish
  • Support by way of necessary resources
  • Frequent reviews and feedback
  • Some degree of freedom in which to achieve the goals

The foreman and the lead-men and the foreman and the superintendent can engage in a systematic goal setting process. The goals become targets, toward which each individual strives. The feedback session provides an opportunity to evaluate progress, provide constructive feedback, and more importantly identify barriers that are hindering this. This gives the employee an opportunity to be heard and the supervisor to actively support the individual's success. This process furthers better communication and understanding as well as fosters greater accountability. If pursued properly, the collaborative nature of the process promotes cooperation, builds trust, and fosters involvement.

The Importance of Proper Planning

Sometimes the reason for poor performance results can be attributed to management. Construction projects are a complex dynamic in nature and conditions can and will change almost constantly. Planning is a necessary operational tool and plays an important role in performance. Planning mostly is under the control of management. The better the planning process and the greater time spent identifying risk and barriers, the less stress is placed on the worker to achieve the productivity or any other stated goals. Giving the worker some degree of involvement in, and understanding of, the planning process as well as possible hurdles, fosters better understanding, reduces tension, and possibly generates workarounds that may be beneficial all around.

Much of the planning done in construction does not include a formal element of risk assessment. Risk assessment/management consists of the logical process of identifying and analyzing barriers to production, quality, and loss exposures; examining alternative techniques for dealing with these barriers and loss exposures; selecting the most promising technique(s); and implementing and monitoring the results to see if, in fact, the barriers have been removed and the risks and loss exposures have been dealt with most effectively. A comprehensive risk management process not only looks at barriers to productivity, quality, and hazards, but at all the risks that reside in field operations, in the tactical work plan, in the means and methods employed to get the job done, as well as in the processes and procedures for executing the work.

In construction, one of the most critical elements requiring control is time. And time is vital to production which is critical to profitability. Sometimes maintaining the schedule may create situations where the foreman must make "either/or" choices. This can lead to potential problems. Supervisors may allow or even encourage workers to take shortcuts in the name of being more productive. They may look the other way when so-called productive workers do not follow good work practices.

All this may seem like the "right" thing to do, but it is short-term thinking! In the long run, the negative results are much more detrimental and insidious in nature than the momentary gains achieved. Management must also ensure that workers have the resources, knowledge, and capability to perform the work so as to meet the production goals.

The first line supervisor is in a key position with the greatest impact on the workforce in creating an optimal work environment. The foreman is with the crew much of the time and has the greatest opportunity to observe the workers' practices and behavior, has the authority to direct the work, make task assignments, and make any necessary changes as required. The foreman ought to be held responsible for ensuring that only good work practices are followed at the worksite, that proper planning and risk assessment have been conducted, and that a safe work environment can and will result.

Utilizing Employees' Desire To Succeed

We have covered planning and risk assessment as way to assist employees in meeting their productivity goals. We also covered goal setting and performance reviews as mean by which to ensure that the employee achieves their expected goals. This speaks to the "have to" element of performance. But what about the more important "want to" element of performance? How does the supervisor motivate the employees to want to exceed the goals and perform at a superior rather than the acceptable level of performance? This is about the "human" side of management.

It is important for the supervisor to understand the human side of enterprise and balance it against the organization's needs and production. Douglas McGregor stated that much of management thinking up to that point was forged in the feudal era and needs rethinking. He came up with the concept that became known as theory X and an opposing one called to theory Y.

Theory X management thinking is that the average human being has an inherent dislike of work and will avoid it if possible. Because of this inherent dislike of work, most people must be coerced, controlled, directed, or threatened so as to induce them to put forth enough effort so as to meet their goals and get their work done. This leads to the conclusion that the average human prefers to be directed, wants to avoid responsibility, has relatively little ambition, and wants security above all.

The opposing theory, theory Y, is based on the following assumptions:

  • The physical and mental effort humans exert at work is as natural as play or rest.
  • External control and the threat of sanctions are not the only means by which to get employees to work toward organizational goals.
  • Individuals will strive to achieve goals to which they are committed.

Commitment to objectives depends on the rewards associated with them. And the most important rewards are those that provide self-satisfaction and recognition as well as personal improvement. The ability to use one's imagination, ingenuity, and creativity in the solution of organizational as well as task problems is a somewhat common human trait. And, most importantly, this human capability is underutilized in most work settings.

So the newly appointed supervisor view of human nature will critically impact his or her interaction with the workforce. Treating employees in line with theory X thinking creates the climate in which they will exercise remarkable ingenuity in circumventing and defeating external controls they resent. This will drain energy from performance goals and objectives. In line with theory Y thinking, the employees learn to exercise self-direction and choose to become responsible for the organizational expectations and achievement of its goals. So in this respect, the supervisor's role becomes that of a mentor, coach, and facilitator who works toward supporting the employee in their goal attainment journey and serves as the enabler of their success.


Opinions expressed in Expert Commentary articles are those of the author and are not necessarily held by the author's employer or IRMI. Expert Commentary articles and other IRMI Online content do not purport to provide legal, accounting, or other professional advice or opinion. If such advice is needed, consult with your attorney, accountant, or other qualified adviser.

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